Home > Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(2)

Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(2)
Shannon Hale

“I’m dumpy,” Charlotte said without emotion.

“You’re not dumpy,” said Sabrina. “You’re five eleven. How can you be dumpy?”

“I feel dumpy.”

“Wait … did Kent call you dumpy? I warned him to keep his mouth shut.”

“No, he was fine. I’m done complaining. And done dating. For now. Sorry. Thanks.”

But it wasn’t over. Word had gotten out among Charlotte’s female network: she’d been on a date! That meant open season. Those weekends each month when Lu and Beckett were with James found Charlotte dressed up and trundled off on blind dates. To clarify, no men actually asked Charlotte out, but every married woman of Charlotte’s acquaintance had a reserve of unmarried men just waiting to take her out once and never call again. Well, some called, but those were the “artists”—hopeful novelists, painters, glassblowers—who found dating women like Charlotte more convenient than applying for grants.

Charlotte was standing in the supermarket checkout, contemplating a strategy of dating avoidance that mostly involved never answering her phone again, when she saw a women’s magazine advertising the article “10 Tips to Saying NO!” She bought it. The ten tips were mildly helpful (“Be gentle but firm, like a good flan! After all, no one wants a slouchy custard.”), but it was a different article that tipped her world upside down.

Common wisdom used to assert that a son needs his father more than a daughter does. Someone to play catch with, right? Well, don’t neglect the daughters. New research warns that daughters of divorced parents can suffer from a dangerous drop in self-esteem.

“Whether they like it or not, teenage girls do identify with their mothers,” offered Dr. Deb Shapiro, researcher for the Minneapolis Center for Family Studies. “When her father leaves her mother, a girl often feels she is being rejected too. We’re finding more and more that these girls can be desperate for male attention and approval, and are much more likely to become teenage pregnancy statistics.”

The accompanying photo gave Charlotte chills: a pretty, somewhat sad teenage girl dressed in a short skirt and halter top, sauntering past a group of ogling boys. “This could be your daughter!” the photo seemed to scream. “She is out there fishing for affection in a swarm of sharks and it’s YOUR FAULT because you weren’t interesting enough to keep her father home!”

Charlotte put down the magazine and cracked the door of her home office. There was Lu on the couch with her new boyfriend, Pete, her legs dangling over his. Charlotte had instituted a no-boyfriend-behind-closed-doors policy, but what was this boy doing when Charlotte couldn’t keep an eye on him? The thought haunted her like an overdose of MSG. She was not a woman who could statically fret—she had to do something.

Coming home from an errand the next afternoon, she just happened to pass by Pete’s house. Oh so casually she parked across the street and watched for a few minutes. Or an hour. When a Jeep pulled up and Pete hopped in, Charlotte followed it to another house. She sneaked out of her car and peered in the basement window. Three boys, including Pete, were sitting on a couch playing a video game.

This is crazy, Charlotte, she told herself. You’re crazy. You’ve lost it.

You really have, said her Inner Thoughts. You weren’t this paranoid before James left.

I know, Charlotte thought back, hoping her Inner Thoughts would shush up and leave her be. If she stuck to Pete, she’d discover a secret, a greasy side, something she could tell Lu that would convince her to stay away from boys until she was older. Say, twenty-five.

It was getting dark. Charlotte crouched down to wait. A bush hid her from the neighbors, and with the lights on inside, surely the boys couldn’t see out. Wait, where had the boys gone? The couch was empty.

She turned.

Pete was standing in the backyard holding a can of cola, squinting at her.

“Mrs. Kinder?”

Charlotte stood up, brushed the grass from her skirt, and said with forced nonchalance, “Hm? What was that? Oh, hello, Pete. Do you live here?”

His squint became even tighter. “It’s my cousin’s house. Are you looking for Lu or something?”

“No, no, I was just examining the various landscaping styles of various properties in various neighborhoods and so on and so forth. You know. For my work.”

Without looking away, he took a long, slow drink from his soda.

“Okay then, nice to see you again, Pete. And such a great placement of a juniper bush! Excellent roots and foliage. Very healthy.”

She hobbled down the slope of the front lawn, her heeled shoes aerating the grass. Not very practical footwear for examining various landscapes in various neighborhoods. Maybe he hadn’t noticed.

No more stalking, Charlotte! her Inner Thoughts demanded.

Sure, okay, but by the way, did you know there’s an entire section in the yellow pages devoted to private investigators?

Two weeks later she received an envelope of information and photos: Pete with his friends in the mall, Pete getting on a school bus, Pete at soccer practice. What had she been expecting? Pete sneaking into seedy motel rooms or sliding paper bags under bathroom stalls?

She put the PI’s file into the shredder then went to find her daughter, who was in the basement, watching commercials on TV. It was time to try the direct approach.

“Hey, Lu. How are you doing?”

Lu sighed and pushed Mute. “Mom, if you want to talk to me, don’t try to be all sneaky about it.”

Charlotte sat beside her on the couch. “I have some concerns about Pete.”

“Of course you do. He’s a boy and you’re my mom and Dad left. It all makes sense.”

Charlotte shut her eyes and recalled an image of a three-year-old Lu in pigtails, twirling unselfconsciously in the living room of their old apartment.

“You’re fourteen, honey,” Charlotte said, returning unwillingly to reality. “That’s just so young to be serious with a boy.”

“Mom, please. Can’t you remember being fourteen? You were my age once, and you came out okay. So lighten up.”

Did I really come out okay? Charlotte wondered. For Lu’s sake (and for fear of legal repercussions if she were caught hiring men to take photos of a teenage boy), she tried to remember what it was like to be young. That Easter weekend, when they visited her mother in North Carolina, she dug out some old boxes and uncovered a diary from her middle school years. The first page arrested her:

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